Controversial coastal agency loses old leader, land funding and new appointees

THE RETURNED RI Coastal Resources Management Council loses one of its old administrative leaders, but has also gained new councilors appointed and funding. Pictured is the Champlin’s Hotel, Marina & Resort on Block Island, an extension of which is one of the controversial decisions to come before the CRMC. / THANK YOU ERIK ELWELL

RESOURCE – The embattled state body in charge of coastal regulation is losing one of its longtime administrative leaders, while also getting new hires and funding to hire more staff.

James Boyd, the deputy director of the RI Coastal Resources Management Council, is retiring after 22 years with the agency, according to a letter shared at the council’s Thursday meeting. Boyd’s departure is the latest in a string of resignations from the troubled agency, which lost its longtime executive director, Grover Fugate, in May 2021. Months later, the chair of the politically appointed council, Jennifer Cervenka, also resigned.

Since then, criticism of the politically appointed panel has grown thanks to controversial statements on hot-button issues such as the expansion of Champlin’s Hotel, Marina & Resort on Block Island. Meanwhile, vacancies in what should be a group of ten members have created quorum problems that resulted in a series of canceled meetings and postponed decisions that left business and real estate owners in the lurch.

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While Boyd’s departure could be seen as another blow to the troubled state agency, at least one vocal critic isn’t too worried.

“There is no doubt that filling his shoes will be challenging,” said Topher Hamblett, advocate and policy director for Save the Bay Inc. “But it’s not like the bottom is falling out or anything like that.”

Hamblett, who has sued the appointed council on behalf of Save the Bay for politically motivated decisions and lack of expertise, does not share the same cynicism for the executive side of the agency. Instead, he and others have commended the hired staff for their expertise and nationally acclaimed achievements, particularly in flood mapping and coastal resilience.

Hamblett was optimistic that Boyd’s job would be filled by someone with a similar level of expertise and dedication, and that the other employees, including Executive Director Jeffrey Willis, were still up for the task.

Another big win, in Hamblett’s view, is the additional funding included in the state’s fiscal 2023 budget to hire more staff, including a full-time hearing officer to settle enforcement cases.

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This was one of the recommendations revealed by a state legislative panel formed to study and propose reforms to the troubled agency.

“That’s an important fundamental reform,” said Hamblett, who was also a member of the House study committee.

However, many of the committee’s other ideas, such as imposing terms on the council and hiring a full-time staff attorney, never got out of the committee during this legislative session. Hamblett still supported those reforms, but was not surprised that they failed to succeed, given the time pressure between the commission finalizing its proposals and the end of the legislative session.

And while these policy and structural changes are still on hold, the council’s quorum issues may be resolved thanks to two new members appointed by Governor Daniel J. McKee.

Catherine Hall, an environmental attorney and professor of marine policy at Williams College-Mystic Seaport Maritime Studies Program, is filling the open seat left by Cervenka, according to the resume submitted to the Senate confirming her nomination.

Meanwhile, Stephen Izzi, also a lawyer specializing in real estate, financing and land use, was appointed to fill the seat of outgoing councilor Joy Montanaro, according to his resume.

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Hamblett supported both nominations, which he said filled a gap for legal expertise on the board, which has been a source of concern in the past when it came to ensuring the panel follows its own rules, he said.

The Senate also confirmed the reappointment of longtime councilman Donald Gomez, whose existing appointment was under scrutiny for failing to meet the eligibility requirements of a councilor who also serves as the city’s elected or appointed official. That incapacity has since been rectified, with Gomez appointed to a new committee — the Wilbour Woods Stakeholder Committee — in his hometown of Little Compton, he confirmed to PBN on Friday.

The CRMC did not respond to requests for comment about Boyd’s retirement or the newly confirmed council members. Boyd could not be reached for comment.

Nancy Lavin is a PBN staff writer. You can reach her at [email protected]

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